In Defense of Ideology
Note — this article was originally published with Areo Magazine and can be found here.
‘Ideological’ is slung about as if it’s an insult. When someone is described as ‘highly ideological,’ it’s typically meant to imply that the person is set in his ways, or otherwise dogmatic. It’s also meant to imply a kind of danger, as if those who don’t possess an ideology are the fairer-minded, unbiased, and even-tempered members of our society. Those ideological citizens, they’rethe problem — if only they cooled off and realized that everyone has a point, we could come together and meet in the middle, where there is no ideology at all, no iron principles by which we should abide.
But an ideology is merely a set of ideas, coherent or otherwise. Devotees of one faith or another have one; ditto for the politically-charged. Are scientific theories ideologies? Why not? An ideology is often thought of as the lens through which one views the world. Most people would consider, say, fundamentalist Christianity and classical liberalism as ideologies — they are sets of ideas through which one interprets ‘facts on the ground’. Does, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution also not offer tools with which one understands the world?
It’s all semantics. We shouldn’t worry about whether some set of ideas is widely considered an ideology or not. What matters is the accuracyof our understanding of the world. While errors in our worldview are inevitable, progress is always possible, and we have a moral imperative to resolve those errors in a never-ending sequence of improvements. This applies to science, society, morality, and any other domain to which reason applies. In better understanding the world, in solving ever more problems, maybe an ideology is proposed at some point in this chain of progress. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter, so long as we solve problems.
Take classical liberalism. Surely this counts as a political ideology by the public, especially in today’s culture wars. Through its tenets of economic freedom, individualism, and both the possibility of and desire for progress, it provides its advocates with a vision of how society ought to be arranged, as well as how wealth is created in the first place. In other words, classical liberalism makes claims about both how a particular aspect of reality works (an economy) as well as how people should act. A tall order for an ideology, but classical liberalism has survived for a couple centuries now.
Now, people will quibble with this ideology. Maybe classical liberalism isn’t as consistent as it appears, the critic says. Maybe the economic side of the ideology is utterly false, and that the Adam Smithian ‘invisible hand’ view of how markets work ignores some fundamental feature of human nature and therefore does not apply to the real world. Or maybe that whole business of individualism is mistaken, or otherwise hopelessly naïve in a world of inevitable collectivism. And so on.
Criticisms of all sorts are levied at such an ideology, as well they should be. But simply dismissing classical liberalism as an ideology as such is no criticism at all — it’s an ad hominem attack specially catered to ideas.
The same applies to religions, scientific theories, and moral philosophies. That any of their advocates are regarded as ideological makes no difference. That their advocates may be mistaken, on the other hand, is everything.
And frankly, if an ideology is understood as a coherent set of explanatory ideas, then the deeper our understanding of reality goes, the more ‘ideological’ it will become. For with every resolution of an error in our scientific, moral, and political theories, our worldview will grow increasingly unified and coherent. We already regard this as a good thing in the scientific domain. But the boundaries between scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledge are artificial — if consistency, problem-solving, and the discovery of universal principles are valuable in science, then so too in moral and political philosophy.
The same mistake about the term ‘ideological’ is made with terms such as ‘extremist’, or ‘far-left’, or ‘far-right’. The implication of these epithets is that the holder of such ‘far’ or ‘extreme’ views is wrong by dint of the fact that his ideas are…what, exactly? Far from the ‘center’? Who decides where that is, and why would centrist ideas necessarily be the right ones? Reality does not care how we slice and dice it.
Consider the admirable nonprofit organization, Ideas Beyond Borders. Founded by Iraqi refugee Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, the organization is dedicated to “preventing extremism by empowering people across the globe with access to new ideas and fresh perspectives.” Much of their work involves translating books and articles and spreading them to people in the Arabic world who would otherwise never have access to such knowledge. Mr. Al Mutar has said that their “Global Conversations discussion forum has reached over 2.4 million in 120+ countries.” This is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s a clear step in the right direction.
But Mr. Al Mutar is not battling extremism per se, but rather bad ideas. The religious fundamentalism of Mr. Al Mutar’s birthplace is not an issue because it’s so ‘extreme’, however defined. It’s problematic because it is false. The moral and empirical claims of the Muslim holy book — or of the Bible, for that matter — are contradicted by other, superior explanations that our societies have discovered. Once again, as with the example of classical liberalism, it is not the ‘extremity’ of an ideology that we ought to care about, but rather its correspondence with reality (or lack thereof).
Finally, labeling an ideology or public policy as ‘far-left’ or ‘far-right’ is a smear tactic, not an argument. The political axis is a human construct — what qualifies as ‘far’ in either direction is a reflection of historical accident, not of the nature of economic, moral, and political principles. For example, an open borders national policy is often labeled as ‘far-left’. But such a policy is either correct or incorrect, according to the relevant explanations. Leftwing pundits call righties ‘far-right’, and vice versa. Implicit in such labeling is that, if only one’s political opponents moderated their stance, then perhaps they could negotiate or otherwise have a meeting of the minds. But, once again, why is the ‘center’ so special? How presumptuous to assume that the principles of reality itself must rest at the exact midpoint of our fabricated political spectrum!
To be clear, ideologies can be composed of moral ideas, factual ones, or both. While a political position is by definition a moral one (what the government ‘should’ do), it can also be informed by one’s underlying ideas about economics, values, etc. (‘the facts’).
The principles of Nature, both moral and scientific, are by definition universal. How extreme, how absolutist,of Mother Nature, to operate by such timeless rules! As our understanding of reality deepens ever further, it will appear more and more ‘extreme’ and ‘ideological’ to some. Because of the unity and coherence of the world, this will happen in science, morality, and politics. If we are to continue to solve problems in society, we must mature beyond dismissing ideas because they don’t fit the profile we would like them to have. Reality is austere, and so are our best explanations of it.
We cannot foresee problems looming on Civilization’s horizon. But we can improve the methods by which we criticize ideas. We must aim our verbal assault at the errors of an idea, not the degree to which it is extreme or part of an ideology.